Prepping for Episode 8: My Star Wars Saga Viewing Plan

Star Wars Episode 8 is only a month away! To prep for it, why not follow my elaborate and exhaustive Star Wars saga viewing plan?

1. Star Wars: Episode I – the Phantom Menace

Come for the podrace, stay for the final lightsaber fight. This was one of my favorite films growing up, and though the acting and screenplay are pretty rough, it’s probably the most beautifully detailed Star Wars film to date and the most Flash Gordon-esque of the series.

2. Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones

Um…some of the action scenes are kind of fun? You can just skip the creepy romance scenes though–they still give me the creeps. I remember going home after seeing this film and crying because I was so disappointed.

3. Clone Wars Miniseries I

Genndy Tartakovsky’s little 2D animated series that no one talks about is some of the most fun and well-paced storytelling in the Star Wars saga. If you can find it, watch it!

4. Star Wars: The Clone Wars (Movie)

The film that kicked off the 3D animated TV series. It’s not particularly good–the plot involves rescuing a baby slug nicknamed Stinky–but the series would go on to become a much more nuanced take on the characters of Anakin and Obi-Wan than we ever got in the prequel films. I would recommend watching the entire series, especially the later seasons, but that would be a little too hardcore for this list.

5. Clone Wars Miniseries II

Genndy Tartakovsky’s second 2D animated series. It came out before the 3D film and TV show, but it’s set hours before the opening scene of Star Wars Episode III, which is why I place it here. It’s just as good as the first miniseries, but with longer episodes so the story can breathe a little. The General Grievous scenes are some of the coolest animation I’ve ever seen!

6. Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith

A lot of people like this one but I sure don’t. It feels wooden and and forced and spends a lot of time planet hopping to random battle scenes for no discernible reason. Ian McDiarmid’s hammy performance is fun to watch though.

7. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

The first of Disney’s Star Wars stand alone films. It’s a fun ride but the magic wears off soon after, kind of like eating cotton candy. That being said, the art design is beautiful and I like how the film takes a different tone from the rest of the series. It doesn’t blend into A New Hope as much as the filmmakers wanted it too, but the ending is still well done

8. Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope

What can I say about this film that hasn’t already been said? It’s the most fun you’ll have watching a Star Wars film and it contains the best moments of the saga. It’s also a perfect movie in the way it stands on it’s own. The world of A New Hope doesn’t need to be explained by exposition or a cinematic universe of other films–it plays on such elemental human storytelling beats and emotions that you just get it.

9.The Star Wars Holiday Special

I said this list was going to be exhaustive! After the cinematic gem that is A New Hope it’s hard to watch our heroes trudge through this badly written TV variety show made up mostly of wookiee grunts, but it’s also hilarious. I try to make my family watch this abomination around Christmas every year, but they all leave the room after a couple of minutes. Hidden in all the bantha poodoo though is a fun little 2D animated short featuring a trippy alien planet made of red jello and Boba Fett riding a dinosaur! If you can’t get through the whole mess, at least seek this bit out.

10. Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back

My favorite Star Wars film! It’s dark and cold and muddy and scary and thrilling, a great counterpoint to the shiny optimism of A New Hope. Also it has robot dinosaurs fighting WWI trench soldiers in the snow–an image that impressed me greatly as young child! It’s actually how my Dad convinced me to watch it with him.

11. Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi

Cover your eyes during the bikini scenes kids! I’ve never understood why this is such a polarizing film for some people. Yes, another Death Star was a bad idea, but the music, editing, visual effects, small moments between the characters and the final fight between Luke and Vader are so well done! Partying on a human-eating teddy bear planet is kind of a strange way to end the trilogy, but I like the originality of it.

12. Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure

I really liked this film growing up, but I guess I was starving for anything Star Wars related. It’s really bad, but it does have that nostalgic Jim Henson workshop charm to it.

13. Ewoks: The Battle for Endor

Ditto for this one, but at least it added a Sith-like witch and stop motion lizard monsters to the mix. For a kid who watched the original trilogy on VHS hundreds of times, this film scratched a Star Wars itch.

14. Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens

I still have to pinch myself sometimes to make sure I’m not dreaming and that there’s actually a new Star Wars trilogy in the process of being made! This film is light on plot and pretty derivative of A New Hope, but it has some beautifuly crafted sequences and introduces engaging new characters to the saga. You don’t watch The Force Awakens for the story–you watch it for Rey and Finn and Kylo and the way they work off each other. Also Harrison Ford makes a grumpy appearance.

Well, there you go. I really doubt any of you are going to have the time or energy to watch all of these films before Episode 8 comes out, but if you do give it a try, let me know what you think. May the Force of others be with you etc. etc.

Crappy Cookie Lens: The Loreo Lens in a Cap

I can only think that the company Loreo got it’s name from their flagship product, a body cap sized lens that has the look and shape of an Oreo cookie. I recently picked up one of these Loreo Lens in a Caps and I was pleasantly surprised by it.

Lunch Break

The Loreo Lens in a Cap only costs around $20 and its been harshly criticized by online reviewers for it’s softness, distorted edges and lack of contrast, all things that I get a kick out of. I re-ignited my interest in photography in college with a lo-fi plastic junk camera that I picked up at a Goodwill, so it takes a lot worse to keep me away. Not only do I enjoy the lo-fi look this lens brings to any camera you mount it on, but also enjoy the challenge: shooting with a crappy fixed focus 35mm lens means you have to get creative. The quality of a photograph taken with this lens rests entirely on the strength of the composition and subject matter, the lens does none of the lifting.

No Swimming or Diving

But that’s not to say that the Loreo Lens in a Cap has no charm. The soft edges lend a retro feel to the images, and the fixed focus throws the foreground out of focus at f/5.6, which creates a unique look. You can shoot at f/64, which turns the lens into a sort of optical pinhole, and with the spin of a junky plastic wheel you can also shoot at an aperture of f/8, f/16 and f/32, but I preferred to stay at f/5.6 for it’s softness and shallower depth of field. At any aperture the lens gives you a flat, faded look, but it’s easy to add contrast in post, especially if you shoot in RAW like I did with these shots.

Early Spring Mud

The lens comes in several mounting options and I went with the Canon EOS mount. I used this lens on both my Canon Rebel and a Sony A7R II with a Fotodiox Canon EOS to Sony E-mount adapter. I enjoyed shooting with both cameras but the A7R II’s full frame gave me a much nicer field of view and revealed more softness on the edges of the lens. 35mm just seems to pair nicer with the full frame format, even though I probably committed some kind of photographic crime by mounting such a crappy lens on such a beautiful high end camera.

Spring Beginning

Finally, I have to admit that I just like the look of the dang thing. It’s light, tiny and, as previously mentioned, Oreo cookie shaped, and it just looks cool mounted on my camera. I’m a hipster at heart and I like to shoot photos and videos with unique and obscure gear, and the Loreo Lens in a Cap, if not much else, is definitely unique and obscure!

Mini Reviews: 2015 Awards Season Films – Part 2

The Hateful Eight

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As a storyteller Quentin Tarantino is a cold-hearted chess player. He sets up his characters on the board and then pits them against each other in violent combat, gazing unflinchingly at the resulting carnage, uncaring and unmoved. This clinical approach seemed to be slipping slightly in Tarantino’s 2012 film Django Unchained, in which he seemed to truly care for a couple of the characters he sent into the fray, but its back with a vengeance in The Hateful Eight, which is undoubtedly his most sadistic and amoral film to date. That’s not to say the film doesn’t have its redeeming features, but you have to dig through a couple of inches of gore to find them.

The film opens with a wooden crucifix displaying Christ contorted with pain on the cross. Perhaps its just Gothic set dressing, but my guess is it has more significance–its warning us that we’re about to see some of the horrific evils Christ came to die for. The story unfolds as eight shifty characters hole up in a haberdashery to wait out a blizzard. The Civil War has just ended and soldiers who fought on both sides are present. There’s a black Union soldier turned bounty hunter with a history or ruthless killing under his belt, as well as two former Confederates guilty of similar atrocities. A second bounty hunter has a ruthless female killer chained to his wrist who he’s taking into town to hang, and the rest of the shifty company may or may not be who they claim.

As the film unfolds, characters shift around the large single room of the haberdashery, discussing the nature of justice and arguing the finer points of war and race. No one is clean–everyone has blood on their hands–but Tarantino picks a side early on. Soon cataclysmic violence erupts and plot twists start coming fast and loose. By the film’s end two of the more sympathetic characters have formed an unlikely alliance, overlooking their vast differences in an attempt to survive. It’s a strangely sweet note in an otherwise sour work, and the only redeeming aspect of the story. For all the hatefulness and violence on screen, this film is actually really well made; I just really didn’t like watching it.

The Revenant

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I should love The Revenant–it has everything I love in it: great actors, realistic period art design, a beautiful and hypnotic score, and stunning natural light cinematography by one of my favorite cinematographers–but I really don’t care for the thing. The film is based on the true life story of trapper Hugh Glass, who was mauled by a bear and abandoned in the American wilderness only to eventually catch up with the men who left him for dead. It’s a great story but unfortunately Director Alejandro González Iñárritu makes all the wrong revisionist choices, adding extra levels of violence and conflict to an already thrilling tale and tacking on an unnecessary revenge plot that makes the film more of a big dumb historical action flick like The Patriot than the deep art film it so desperately wants to be.

There are some great moments in The Revenant, moments that transcend the film and thrill with their beauty, but these are few and far between and are muddied by an overabundance of fake looking CG-enhanced action scenes, an overbearing blue color palette, unnecessarily fancy camera work and a complete lack of spacial reasoning, which makes one question the implied difficulty of Glass’s journey. He basically wanders around and bumps into whichever character or group of characters he needs to meet next, and we cut from mountains to rivers to plains to frozen lakes without any sort of visual coherence.

The film ends with a fight scene of unearned brutality and a statement that so overly simplifies what we’ve just seen that I want to reach into the screen and slap the character who says it. I’m not sure why The Revenant has garnered such praise from critics or so many Oscar nominations. It feels more like a missed opportunity than a great work.

Spy Vs Spy Vs Spy: Mission Impossible, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Spectre Go Head to Head to Head

This summer brought us not one super spy film, but two, with Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and when the holiday movie months arrived, it was once again time for another entry in the James Bond franchise: Spectre. Instead of reviewing these three films separately I decided to pit them against each other in a no-holds barred fight to the death. Let’s see who’s left standing when the dust clears.

Characters

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Every film needs them, and Mission Impossible has a couple, but they’re all pretty bland. It feels like they all have interesting back stories and relationships that have happened off screen, I just wish they could have happened on screen instead. Jeremy Renner and Simon Pegg play their parts amiably, and Tom Cruise’s Agent Ethan Hunt is steely eyed and daring as ever but not much else. Many of the characters in this film were introduced in 2011’s Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, but then as now they had little depth or development. For such a huge franchise, it feels like an opportunity to create enduring screen characters has been wasted.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. fares much better with it’s characters. It’s trio, played by Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, and Alicia Vikander, have plenty of fun scenes together, and the film seems more interested in developing their characters than anything else. Unfortunately, Spectre gets the lowest ranking in terms of character. Craig is great as Bond, as burly and volatile as ever, but the rest of the characters kind of just lie there, from a bland bond girl to a villain with zero motivation and nothing to do. It’s kind of sad really.

Winner: The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Action

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The action in U.N.C.L.E. is fast and hard to follow. It relies heavily on computer graphics and flashy editing and seems to be more of an afterthought than anything else. Imposible‘s action on the other hand is jaw-droppingly awesome. It’s so well paced and so exciting that it trumps everything else in the film. Cruise does a lot of his own stunts and it really helps sell the shots. We get to see him hanging from a real airplane in flight, racing down precarious mountain roads on a motorcycle without a helmet, and enduring one of the hardest to watch underwater scenes in movie history. There’s also some excellent hand to hand combat, both by Cruise and co-star Rebecca Ferguson.

The action in Spectre is pretty good too, with plenty of exciting set pieces in exotic locales and a climactic escape scene. That being said, it just doesn’t have the style, grace or raw energy of Impossible’s action.

Winner: Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

Plot

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Spy films thrive on overly convoluted, improbable plotting, and all three of these films suffered from just that–but which had the best? The plots in both Impossible and U.N.C.L.E. seemed to exist solely to forward the action and character building. Both were hard to follow and kind of fell apart when you thought about them, and neither had very interesting protagonists. The convolution in Impossible was a bit more annoying than U.N.C.L.E.‘s because it took itself more seriously without having the actual dramatic weight to justify it. Spectre also had an overly serious and problematic plot. Plot points were set up then dropped halfway through the film and a big reveal at the end didn’t really thrill any but the most die hard Bond fans. It also attempted and and failed to tie plot threads of the three previous Craig Bond films together, making for quite a mess of a story.

Now, as much as I liked the simplicity and lightness of U.N.C.L.E.’s plot. Impossible’s tangled web of intruge still made for a more enjoyable ride with higher emotional stakes. So as much as it annoyed me, I have the concede that it probably was the best of the lot.

Winner: Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

Cinematography/Art Design

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The opening for U.N.C.L.E. is beautifully shot to appear as if it’s a Cold War news reel. Even after this conceit fades to a more polished look, the film maintains it’s 60’s aesthetic, right down to grainy film, gaudy colors, whip zooms and long tracking shots. The costumes and sets are impeccable and the lighting strikes just the right mix of classic studio and modern realism. Impossible is more polished, with lots of swooping aerial shots and shiny spy interiors. That being said, there are some very beautifully stylized scenes including a knife fight performed mostly in silhouette and a protracted sniper scene in the dimply lit catwalks above an opera.

Our underdog Spectre has a surprising comeback here! As beautiful as the opera scene was in Impossible, Spectre blows it away with the beauty of its every shot. The film opens with an impressive single take of a Day of The Dead parade in Mexico City, and then takes us to a brooding Italian city at night, a gorgeous mountain lake in winter, a dusty Eastern city at sunset, and a bizarre technological citadel in the middle of nowhere. The set and costume design are superb, and the cinematography just sparkles. If only the film could have been as good as it looked.

Winner: Spectre

And the Winner Is… Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol!

I’ve read a couple reviews arguing that the Mission Impossible franchise has stolen the mantle of best super spy series from James Bond, and I have to admit, I kind of agree. Even though I wasn’t a huge fan of the previous film, Rogue Nation was a pleasure to see in theaters, and a classy endeavor at that. As Bond continues to seduce the ladies and play with weird gadgets, its nice to see a series that takes the theme of spying a bit more seriously without losing the fun of a Bond film or entering the dark dramatic grounds of the Bourne series. Even though I’m not huge fan of the franchise, I’m looking forward to watching Agent Ethan Hunt’s next adventure.

Mini Reviews: 2015 Awards Season Films – Part 1

Why do all the best films come out in the space of three months?! My wallet and I wish the studios would space them out equally over the course of a year, but there is something fitting about the quality of cinema climbing as we approach our holy days. Here are some mini reviews of the 2015 awards season films I’ve seen so far.

Sicario

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Every once in a while I see a film that already feels like a classic, and Sicario is one of those kinds of films. Emily Blunt plays FBI agent Kate Macer who is frustrated by the violent drug crimes she encounters daily in her hometown. After a particularly violent encounter she gets pulled into America’s chaotic war on Mexican drug cartels by careless CIA contractor Matt Graver, played by Josh Brolin. Graver doesn’t seem to take his job very seriously: he wears flip flops and Hawaiian shirts, takes long naps between dangerous missions and jokes around in warzones–not the best guide to a world Kate has never experienced before. Both he and Kate follow leads on both sides of the border given to them by the enigmatic Alejandro, played with amazing subtlety by Benicio Del Toro, an expert in the field who may not be trustworthy. He is kind and gentle but prone to fits of violence, and there’s something in his eyes. All three actors deliver killer performances and the plot twists and turns until everything is thrown on it’s head, leading up to a devistating and poetic final scene. I don’t want to give much more away, so if you can handle some violence and language, watch this film! The screenplay is tight, the acting brilliant, and the cinematography and music are almost perfect. One of my favorite films of the year so far!

Black Mass

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Compared to classics like The Godfather and GoodfellasBlack Mass is middling mobster film. It’s not bad, but it’s not that great either. Johnny Depp plays Whitey Bulger, a real life Bostonian mobster who the FBI turned a blind eye to for decades in return for his informing on other mobs. It’s a dark and scandalous story, and one that deserves to be told, but I felt that the script was a little too on the nose. Characters often deliver dumbed-down exposition rather than realistic dialog and the film never seems to know weather it wants to idolize or demonize Depp’s Bulger, who seems to be really enjoying all the makeup and scenery chewing. The slow moral decay of Bulger’s friend and FBI agent John Connolly–played by Joel Edgerton–who was largely responsible for allowing Bulger’s reign of terror, is well rendered and brings a little more meat to the proceedings, but the final product is nothing to brag about.

Crimson Peak

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The good thing about Crimson Peak is it’s the most accurate screen representation of Gothic horror I’ve ever seen. The bad thing about Crimson Peak is it’s the most accurate screen representation of Gothic horror I’ve ever seen. I’m a big fan of director Guillermo Del Toro. His Pan’s Labyrinth is one of my favorites, and I also have a soft spot for his first Hellboy film. Del Toro understands the importance of good art design in fantasy filmmaking and its clearly the star here–every inch of each set is intricately detailed, colored and lit, and the sets in general just thrum with energy. The actors inhabit these spaces competently, and the story is well told and paced, but I guess I just find Gothic horror a bit silly. In this genre the twisted passions and dark desires of human characters are supposed to be more haunting than anything the supernatural world can cook up, and Del Toro dutifully plays by this rule book, clearly loving the genre he’s paying such close homage too, but I just can’t get on board. What the filmmaker finds romantically haunting I find simply base. Sin is sin, whether it takes place in an dirty alley or an elaborate mansion, and in either case it’s fairly easy to understand, not half as dark or deep as Gothic horror or Del Toro claims it to be.

Steve Jobs

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I love screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s style of writing. It’s super brainy and jams as much info into as little space as possible. It was perfect when paired with David Fincher’s sense of style and directing in 2010’s The Social Network, and it also works remarkably well in Danny Boyle’s new film Steve Jobs. The film centers on the infamous titular character as he navigates the relational complexities and pitfalls–many of which he was personally responsible for–of his work and social life as he also attempts to prepare for three milestone product launches: The Macintosh, The NeXT, and the iMac. These three extended yet fast paced scenes make up the entirety of the film following Jobs as he strides from room to room and converses and argues with character after character–it’s as if the conflicts of his entire life have been compressed into three moments in time. It’s certainly not a realistic approach, and often feels like a CliffsNotes of Jobs’ biography rather than a dramatic film, but it still somehow all works. Michael Fassbender is pitch perfect as Jobs and Alwin H. Küchler’s warm and often abstract cinematography, shot on grainy film, just sings. When I left the theater, I felt like I knew Steve Jobs, if not liked him, better. The ending is a bit of an emotional cop-out, but I’ll let it pass. If you’re at all interested in this guy or the history of Apple computers, this film is a must watch.

The Martian

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In the future the U.S. apparently has an elaborate and well funded space program and is running regular missions to Mars. An astronaut, played by Matt Damon, gets left behind in a storm and the rest of the film is about the elaborate attempts to “bring him home.” The Martian is the hardest of hard science fiction. Not once is the beauty or magic of space pondered–everyone is too busy talking shop. Damon keeps a regular video journal as he walks us through his attempts at survival as our NASA friends back on Earth have long discussions in board rooms about travel times and trajectories. It all sounds a bit dull but its actually a lot of fun. The characters aren’t complex, but their banter is well written and the audience is on board because the situation is so desperate. I heard someone say recently that The Martian is the kind of film America would make if we were a communist country: a film about a group of people more interested in their country’s success than their personal lives who selflessly band together to solve an overwhelming problem. It’s kind of true and feels unrealistic in our current self-obsessed culture, but it’s not a bad sentiment. We’ve never been Red, but we used to be a little more selfless.

 

Mini Reviews: Cinema Double Feature

I turned 29 this August and I was depressed so I went to the cinema and watched two movies back-to-back.

Irrational Man

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I love how brazenly simple Woody Allen’s films are. He doesn’t care if his stories follow well-trodden paths to predictable endings–he just delights in the dramatic art of getting there. Joaquin Phoenix plays a depressed philosophy teacher who finds new meaning in life when he witnesses injustice and takes the law into his own hands. When the inevitable fallout of his vigilante action ensues, the student he’s dating, played by Emma Stone, is faced with the irrationality of her teacher’s moralistic teachings versus his selfish actions and is conflicted about whether or not she should turn him in. Both actors turn in great performances and their meandering scenes of dialog sparkle. Like Phoenix’s character, Allen still sees the world as a terrifyingly pointless place, but he also takes joy in ironically punishing selfishness and wrongdoing. This film has an air of Greek tragedy to it, as well as a line of dialog that betrays Allen’s longing for something more. When discussing Christianity, Phoenix’s character admits what peace he would have if he could only believe in the Christian God. Allen sees right and wrong, justice and injustice and the concept of a loving and righteous God as mere human constructs–like a magic act; but as always he longs for the magic to be real.

Shaun the Sheep Movie

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Not enough films without dialog are made these days. That the children’s animated film Shaun the Sheep Movie, residing in a genre that thrives on adult joke laden scripts voiced by celebrity actors, is sans dialog is pretty impressive. That I was the only person in the theater is pretty telling–no one wants to see a children’s film like this. But if you do choose to buck the trend and watch it, be prepared for a really fun time. Aardman Animations has outdone itself this time, sending their little claymation sheep names Shaun and his bumbling barnyard friends on a whimsical, hysterical adventure, communicated entirely through action and an occasional grunt, mumble or sigh. There’s a scene here that made me laugh out loud. Shaun and his sheep friends try to impersonate humans in a restaurant, mimicking everything they see around them, but that doesn’t work so well when a woman across from them accidentally brushes her silverware off the table and another patron spills his drink. It’s one of many joyously silly scenes in this film, and isn’t just cute but genuinely funny. If you have kids, rent this film! If you don’t have kids, rent this film!

Mini Reviews: More Netflixing

Summer–time for staying at home and lazily watching Netflix!

Blue Ruin 
2013. Directed by Jeremy Saulnier

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The family feud is a staple of classic American storytelling, but it’s hard to imagine the backwoods familial wars portrayed in, say, Huckleberry Finn happening in modern day America. That’s why Blue Ruin is so compelling–it tells a story of revenge and violence between two feuding families that you wouldn’t imagine could happen today, but in a totally convincing way. The film’s conceit is fairly simple–if the cops aren’t called and the violence is concealed, a blood-soaked feud can go on almost indefinitely. Blue Ruin has no clear heroes. The protagonist starts off on a righteous path, but as the film progresses and more of the past is revealed, his justice-seeking vigilantism begins to lose its way. The filmmaking is tight and tense, the music haunting, the tone perfect. It doesn’t revel in violence so much as mourn it’s misguided use. This is a mournful film about the mutual destruction of those who cannot forgive on both sides of a conflict.

Django Unchained
2012. Directed by Quentin Tarantino

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This film is frustrating because, like Tarantino’s previous Inglorious Basterds, it’s a period piece rife with inaccuracy yet buzzing with commendable rage. Just like the commando heroes in Inglorious couldn’t have known the true horrors that were being enacted against the Jewish people by the Nazis in WWII Europe, the heroes of Django could not have had the twenty-twenty vision of slavery in the American south that we have now, nor the knowledge of it’s immanent downfall to avenge it so fearlessly. This then is revenge wish fulfillment, similar to the ending I always imagined for Disney’s Cinderella, where I somehow magically entered the film myself and punched the evil stepmother in the face over and over again. But instead of punching a wicked matron, our heroes gun down hoards of stereotypical white trash slavers as they howl in inbred hatred and stupidity–pure wish fulfillment.

This is the first Tarantino film I’ve seen that has characters the filmmaker seems to truly care for. Every one of his films up to this point has felt like a cold chess game, where characters are merely pawns to be intricately played into bloody conflict with each other. Yet in this film there are scenes where freed slave Django and his German liberator Schultz are treated with true affection, allowed to be more than just men of violence but good men who care about what’s right and show love and compassion to others. That they are then catapulted into the roles of bloody avengers is discordant with their characters, and makes for a frustrating viewing experience. The ending, truly Biblical in it’s righteous wrath, again suddenly becomes a lighthearted western romp–a great homage to exploitation films of the 70’s, but another discordant note in an incredibly discordant film.

Creep
2014. Directed by Patrick Brice

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This is a found footage film that’s startling in it’s simplicity and the surprising humor its scenarios generate. It trades less in jump scares than in uneasiness and could have easily been a comedy with a few basic modifications to it’s plot. In a way it still is a comedy, a slight character study of a bizarre yet winning personality who is as funny as he is frightening. There are a couple eye-rolling moments when you have to ask why anyone would have kept a camera rolling, and the character who operates the camera–who is also the director–isn’t the best actor, but overall the film works and ranks closer to found footage masterpiece The Blair Witch Project than most of the recent found footage garbage.

My Top Five Favorite Films of 2014

I had a really great time at the cinema in 2014, and these are my top five favorite films.

1. Interstellar

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I loved this film! I went to see it three times, it moved and inspired me, and even
brought me to tears. Interstellar feels like a return to the cinema of the past. It’s full of grand imagery, thundering romantic music cues and features an epic science fiction adventure plot that has very real human stakes. It’s fitting that a film so closely modeled around Kubrick’s classic 2001: A Space Odyssey would have a similar weight and gravitas, but unlike 2001, Interstellar is a much more emotional and idea-centric film, and director Christopher Nolan isn’t afraid to communicate these emotions and ideas through dialog that may seem overly theatrical to some–but for me it works. Nolan is dealing here with themes that most filmmakers never will, and he needs a broader dramatic vocabulary to examine them: the way in which humans feel abandoned by the divine, the concept of a higher power governing the universe, and the way the passage of time effects us. Though it’s editing stumbles slightly near the end, the film never slows down or feels dull, even at it’s almost three hour running time. The acting is superb, the music is glorious, and the finale is perfect. If you haven’t already done so, watch this film!

2. Boyhood

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As everyone has already noted, this film was shot over a period of 12 years. It
focuses on a boy, his relationship with his family, and the joys and turmoils of
childhood and growing up. The camera follows him from year to year as he literally
grows up in front of the lens. What resonates so much with me is that I was a boy
during some of the years this film was shot, and as my younger brother and I watched,
we found ourselves identifying with the cultural touchstones that appear on screen:
Presidential elections, computers and video game systems, Harry Potter mania, sports events, popular music and fashion trends–the best part is that these touchstones aren’t
being recreated like most period films, they’re actually being captured as they
happen. Director Richard Linklater has a wonderfully relaxed cinematic style, and he’s not
afraid to make a film with low stakes that breathes. You’re not going to find much
dramatic tension or classical storytelling here, but what you are going to find is an
uncanny capturing of an era, and a bittersweet, dead-on look at what growing up as a
boy in the United States is like. What pleases me most about Boyhood is that it’s
permanently captured the period of my childhood, and it’s something I come back to
and enjoy for the rest of my life.

3. The Grand Budapest Hotel

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The Grand Budapest Hotel is probably the darkest, most violent Wes Anderson film to
date, but that doesn’t mean it’s not funny, and it has all the wit and mannered charm
of the rest of his filmography. The film centers around a hotel somewhere in Europe and its larger than life, gold-digging clerk who inherits a priceless painting from a family
that is clearly up to no good. Told through multiple narrators, time periods–and
even aspect ratios–the film remains a fairly simple heist story, featuring a
hilariously complex prison break and some cartoonish action sequences–I think
Anderson is still kind of hung up on the wonderfully two dimensional stop motion
effects he achieved in Fantastic Mr. Fox. In the end, the film is about the darkness
of Fascism and the way in which it permanently changed Europe, but that’s mostly lost
in the cacophony of it’s slapstick climax and ornate art design. That’s not to say the film
doesn’t work. It’s a joy to behold as well as a dramatic punch in the gut, and
perhaps one of Anderson’s most emotional films to date. The ending is simply
devastating, but not without its sweetness. Critics have observed that Wes Anderson
is in love with the past and has never really felt comfortable with the modern world
he lives in, and nowhere is that more apparent than in The Grand Budapest Hotel.

4. Nightcrawler

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I’ve reviewed Nighcrawler already, and you can read that review here. It was one of the most engaging films I saw in 2014. Lou Bloom, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, is an amazing cinematic creation, and the way this character plays with your emotions throughout the film has to be seen to be believed.

5. Edge of Tomorrow

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Edge of Tomorrow is that rare summer film that doesn’t pander to it’s audience. Instead it presents it’s complex science fiction plot through a smart, economical series of images and relies on the audience’s intelligence to sort everything out. It’s also rare for its character development–there are no lazy “types” here and even the smallest side character gets his moment to develop. Tom Cruise is excellent as an unsympathetic military PR man fated to become a selfless hero questing to save mankind, and Emily Blunt is surprisingly believable as a battle hardened warrior, despite her petite frame. Did I mention the excellent art design? It really is nice to look at and makes the world of the film feel both mundane and lived in, even as men in CG mechanical suits fight giant CG robot octopus aliens. All around a rare feat and a pleasant surprise, Edge of Tomorrow feels like a film that will be considered a classic someday.

Mini Reviews: 2015 Summer Films – Part 1

Avengers: Age of Ultron

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Avengers: Age of Ultron is as close as filmmaking has come to capturing the feel of reading a super hero comic book. It’s jammed full of thrilling action scenes, muddled plots and subplots, sci-fi techno babble, obscure character cameos, and iconic images. An elaborate fight scene near the end is staged in slow-motion, almost like the individual panels of a comic. It’s not a great film, and it’s certainly not as well conceived or paced as it’s predecessor, but it sure is a joy to behold if you’re a fan of the genre, and especially so if you like super hero comics.

Mad Max: Fury Road

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Now THIS is how you make a movie! I don’t even like the Mad Max series or the post apocalyptic genre, but this film is a 10. When the last frame cut to the credits I found myself applauding, and I wasn’t alone. Everything is perfectly crafted in this film–perfect plot, perfect character development, perfect art design, perfect cinematography and editing, perfect action choreography; even the violence was handled perfectly–not overly gory or mean spirited but still realistic and scary. There’s not a wasted frame or a self-indulgent moment–except maybe that electric guitar flamethrower that everyone is talking about. I’ve read some reviews complaining that the film’s story is too simple, but I think that’s one of the its strengths. Fury Road‘s story is stripped downs and iconic, like a western, and most of it is shown rather than told, a unique trait of cinema that most blockbuster directors have ignored in recent years. Mad Max: Fury Road is my favorite film so far this Summer, and maybe the coolest action adventure film I’ve ever seen–right up there with Raiders of the Lost Ark. If you like movies at all you should go see it right now!

Jurassic World

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Jurassic World is a bizarre, laughable parody of the original Jurassic Park. Where the original was beautifully crafted and paced, this “soft reboot” as some are calling it is flat and one-noted. Park was full of wonder and hard science fiction, World is jaded and made up of goofy dinosaur fan service. It may not be a bad cheesy monster movie, but it’s no science fiction classic like Spielberg’s original. Avoid this film unless you just want a good chuckle.

Mini Reviews: Netflixing

Here are some mini reviews based on films I’ve watched on Netflix over the past year.

Her Master’s Voice
2012. Directed by Nina Conti

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This is one of the most impressive documentaries I’ve seen, and one I’ve wanted to go back to again and again. Nina Conti is a skilled British ventriloquist who works wonders with a simple monkey puppet. She’s beautiful and sharply funny, and much of her humor is based on self-mockery, picking apart the absurdity of her art form. The man who trained her passed away shortly before this film was made, inspiring her to travel to a conference in America dedicated to ventriloquism that he always wanted her to go to, as well as a home for ventriloquist puppets whose owners have died–a strangely haunting place. She brings her monkey along for the ride, as well as a plethora of her master’s old puppets, all of whom she gives a voice to during her travels. The film is very intimate, composed mostly of shots Nina must have filmed herself, as she deals with her complex feelings for her old master by talking to his old puppets. We also get to see the convention and a couple of great interviews with Mrs. Conti’s fellow ventriloquists. Her Master’s Voice is both a deeply personal film and an informative glimpse at the odd world of ventriloquism. It’s slightly sad, very funny, and a joy to watch.

Beyond The Black Rainbow
2010. Directed by Panos Cosmatos

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This film is a bizarre blend of the coldness of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the weirdness of a 70’s acid trip and the titillating grunge of an 80’s slasher film. It doesn’t make much sense, but it sure gets under your skin. The music is top notch electronica and the visuals are as gorgeous as they are confusing. The director said he wanted to create a fever dream version of his childhood, based on what his young self  imagined horror films were like, and that this project was also part of a healing process for him, dealing with the loss of his mother. It’s shot on 35mm and has plenty of grain for lo-fi film lovers. It’s more art installation than narrative, but it sure is interesting to look at.

The American Scream
2012. Directed by Michael Stephenson

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Ever drive by one of those houses festooned with gravestones and corpses in late October and wonder why someone would want their front yard to look like that? This documentary does it’s best to answer that question, and it’s both funny and a little sad. We meet three families that have all been bitten by the Halloween house bug, and follow them from late summer to October 31st as they spend every spare moment and dollar decking their houses out for the holiday. These people are extremely driven, and their passion sometimes borders on the manic, but it’s fun to see their creativity at work and the way they grow closer doing what they love. The father-son duo steal the show as two slightly bumbling yard decorators who make up for their low budget and bad production values with a lot of heart. This film is definitely worth a watch, especially around Halloween.

Wrong
2012. Directed by Quentin Dupieux

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There isn’t much absurdist humor in cinema these days, and that’s one of the reasons Wrong feels like such a breath of fresh air. It is, quite simply, a hilariously absurd film. From the first shot you know you’re in for something different: firemen stand around doing nothing as a van burns on the side of the road. One of them even reads the paper. The title appears: “Wrong” and we get the first off-kilter joke of many. By film’s end we’ll be treated to a benevolent mystical dognapper, a man who paints random cars in parking lots, a gardener who keeps losing trees, and one of the most terrifyingly crazy girlfriends of all time. Stilted dialog and terrible accents abound, characters have insane emotional shifts and take strange journeys through time and space, and in one indoor location it’s always raining. Wrong may not have anything to tell us, aside from, perhaps, a general warning about the dangers of crazy girlfriends, but it sure is absurdly entertaining.

Lost in La Mancha
2002. Directed by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe

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The only thing more spectacular than watching a Terry Gilliam film is watching a Terry Gilliam film fall apart. After dreaming for years of making an adaptation of the classic Don Quixote, Gilliam finally got the chance, and Lost in La Mancha documents this film’s pre production and early shooting periods. We get to see the intricacies of the way Gilliam writes a script, designs sets and costumes, finds locations, and casts. From frame one there are warning signs: actors are late to arrive or get hurt, set and costume designers go way over budget, and locations are ruined by unnatural weather conditions. No film has been made without a couple of these problems, but the combined sum proves to be too much for Gilliam and his crew. What I respect most about the people involved with this project is how professional they were to the bitter end. Even in the most heated moments, no one treats anyone else unfairly. Watching someone’s passion project fall apart around them is not a pretty sight, but it sure is fascinating.

Mirror Mirror
2012. Directed by Tarsem Singh

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I’m not sure why this film was panned as bad as it was. Sure, the dialog is breezy and disposable and the dramatic stakes couldn’t be lower, but it has the family friendly charm and innocence of a classic studio film, something sorely missed in today’s motion picture climate. A goofy re-telling of the Snow White fairy tale, Mirror Mirror doesn’t take itself very seriously, which is a relief. Visionary filmmaker Tarsem directs, and his art design is bizarre and exquisite. Seriously, Tarsem and his team should do the art direction for everything. The only issues I had with this film was a slight disconnect between Tarsem’s dark if beautiful art design and the frothy script. All in all though this film is an enjoyable family-friendly romp. I recommend it.

Mini Reviews: Some Recent Films I’ve Seen

I haven’t done one of these in a while. I still owe you a Summer 2014 Films Part 2 review, but my computer recently crashed and I lost the file. Maybe I’ll post a re-write eventually. In the mean time…

Birdman
2014. Directed By Alejandro González Iñárritu

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At its core, Birdman is an observation of man and his sense of worth. It repeatedly asks the question “Is it important to be important?” That question is dodged more than it’s answered, and the story often seems to be more interested in observing the intricacies of stage acting and actors, or mocking popular cinema, or naively criticizing critics. When it does get focused, it’s a fairly intense, emotional observation, with a camera that gets right up into actors faces as they wax eloquent or scream angrily. It offers few answers but raises a lot of engaging questions. The actors are all great. There’s a drum soundtrack that’s killer. It’s definitely worth a watch.

Nightcrawler
2014. Directed by Dan Gilroy

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Nightcrawler delivers a cinematic double punch–it’s got both a unique world and an intense character to explore. The world of nightcrawlers–people who chase the police at night to get footage of accidents and crime scenes for news stations–is as dark as it is interesting; it’s a world you’ve never seen, and it’s hard to take your eyes off of it. Enter a relentless go-getter sociopath played brilliantly by Jake Gyllenhaal. He’s never held a camera before but he’s willing to do whatever it takes to be the best nightcrawler ever. You follow him on his nocturnal adventures, thrilled by his ingenuity while cringing at his carelessness for human life–how far will this guy go to get his footage? You’re constantly tempted to root for him, but slowly beginning to realize just how selfish and evil he truly is. Nightcrawler is a sharp observation of human character and interaction as well as a nail-biting suspense film. You may never encounter a more interesting world or character in a movie.

Into The Woods
2014. Directed by Rob Marshall

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Disregarding a certain post modern apathy, Into The Woods is a grand observation of fairy tales, both of their basic structure and what they imply about the human condition. I was thoroughly entertained and challenged by this strangely un-Disney-like Disney film as it wound its way through a tangle of conflicted fairy tale characters, all in pursuit of something just out of their reach–the baker and his wife want a child, Jack wants his cow, Rapunzel wants her prince, the witch just wants to be young again. These characters’ desires are all cleverly entwined and the resulting chaos is both hilarious and tragic. The film’s narrative seems to meander, but proves to be tightly structured, tying up every loose end in a glorious if dark climax. I’m fully aware that certain adult elements were neutered from the original Broadway Musical script to cater to a larger audience, but it seems to retain much of its original bite regardless. Into the Woods is not your average feel-good fairy tale film, and it may not even have a hero to cheer for, but it has a lot of truth to share, if mixed with a bit of falsehood. The music and lyrics are also exceptionally good. You may just get a couple of these songs stuck in your head for a long, long time.

The Hobbit 3: Oh No! More Hobbit!

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG

God bless Peter Jackson. He has a good heart and he clearly loves making movies. Nothing shows his love for this craft more than The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. It’s a film packed to near bursting with thrilling sights, passioned monologues and epic moments. Sad to say it has more in common with Dungeons and Dragons, a derivative version of Middle Earth, than it does with Tolkien’s original classic.

But wait, let me take a little of that back. Of the three Hobbit films, The Battle of the Five Armies is perhaps the most faithful to Tolkien’s original work, or, to phrase that better, the least mislead. Sure there are huge additions and striking omissions, but overall we kind of get the last couple chapters in there. Smaug is killed, Lake-town is destroyed, and the forces of men, dwarves, elves and goblins converge to wage war. We also get a little glimpse at the White Council’s raid on Dol Guldur, an unnecessary but interesting side plot. Is there a ton of unnecessary action? Yes. Is that action well choreographed and exciting? I hate to admit it, but also yes. My brother Peter phrased it best after emerging from the darkness of the theater: “This film has rekindled my 2003 desire to kill orcs.” There are some really stunning fight sequences in this film, and even though they rely heavily on CG, they work. Really well in fact.

We also get a some nice character development from Bilbo and Thorin, as Bilbo becomes a little more daring and a little wiser, and Thorin is tragically doomed by his desire for wealth. One of the things I always enjoyed about Tolkien’s book is how honest and almost cynical it is about the greed of men. Even the noblest of characters are willing to slaughter each other for gold, and only the homespun selflessness of Bilbo saves them from themselves. Peter Jackson spoils this theme by inflating it to ridiculous heights. Instead of Thorin just getting a bit too greedy, Jackson insinuates that the treasure in the mountain is somehow cursed like the ring in the Lord of the Rings trilogy is cursed, and that it’s slowly perverting Thorin. Too bad Gandalf didn’t take this into consideration when he sent the dwarves to recover it. This part of the film makes no sense and is frankly ridiculous.

This leads me to the main problem with The Battle of the Five Armies, and the Hobbit films in general: they’re less movies than footnotes for The Lord of The Rings Trilogy. Jackson seems to be riffing on ideas from his other films rather than creating new ones, which makes for some very unbelievable and unsatisfying sequences. Remember how Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli efficiently cut down countless orcs in The Fellowship of the Ring? Well the Dwarves and Bilbo do that too, though there’s nothing in these films to indicate that they’re in any way as skilled as those three were. Remember how the Rohan soldiers bravely defended Helm’s Deep from wave upon wave or Uruk-hai in The Two Towers? Well, the men and women of Lake-town do that too, even though they’re just townsfolk, whereas the Rohan were all hardened soldiers. Remember how Legolas did ridiculous stunts? Well…um…he still does. And they’re still kind of stupidly laugh-out-loud awesome.

This blunt, shorthand style of filmmaking isn’t new to Peter Jackson. He’s no master of subtlety, and even in the original Lord of the Rings films characters barked stereotypical lines and did ridiculously epic things. But these unrealistic, purely cinematic moments felt earned; in the Hobbit films they just feel tacked on. We had to watch Aragorn slog through the wilds before he led armies. Bard just magically becomes an Aragorn doppelgänger overnight.

What are we left with then? A very flawed trilogy with some surprisingly artful moments. An Unexpected Journey gave us magical dwarf song wafting up through the moonlight, The Desolation of Smaug gave us splendid visions of elven castles and dragons and spiders just as wonderful as my father made them sound reading to me as a kid, and The Battle of the Five Armies, though at times ramping to ridiculous levels of testosterone and video game-like action, gives us a surprisingly faithful ending, wrapping up as abruptly and as simply as the book did. It’s almost as if Jackson, reading all of the complaints about the multiple endings in his Return of The King, said “you want a simple ending? I’ll give you a simple ending!” There’s a moment in all the digital chaos where the booming music and clanging sound effect fade out, the last of the raging battle is viewed from a distance, and we’re left with a small group of characters standing alone on a mountain. Surprisingly we don’t cut back to the last dregs of the battle or the myriad soldiers below. The film becomes small and stays small, focusing on the remaining dwarves saying their tearful farewells and Bilbo and Galdalf as they make their peaceful way home, just like the book did. For all the bad bits, Jackson ended this second trilogy well. Bless him. I can’t wait to see what cinematic wizardry he conjures up next!

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